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Colibasanu, Geopolitical Futures: “World wars tend to be recurrent”

Published at: 19-04-2018

Posted on: April 19th, 2018 by RaduC No Comments

My guest this week is Ms Antonia Colibasanu, a well-known geopolitical analyst with Geopolitical Futures where she is the Chief Operating Officer, a capacity in which she works closely with the founder of the organization, the celebrated geopolitical forecaster and strategist George Friedman.

RC: Antonia, thank you for accepting my invitation. We continue to live in exciting times. The cold war period when tensions between the West and the East soared, once the “Iron Curtain” fell, was followed by an easing of international relations – which we see now rebound. Could we talk about a cyclical recurrence of major global reconfigurations?

AC: Of course we could, and we have two models that we can consider here. The economic model on the one hand. Somehow the economy dictates where the society and social development are headed. There are cyclical recurrences in the economy and hence in politics. You can look at how the world economy has evolved after World War II based on that. The Cold War events, the two competing integration models …

RC: Do you mean the communist and the capitalist models?

AC: Yes, one was run by the USSR and its group of allies and the similar group led by the US, two completely different models, philosophically speaking, and economically in competition. The second large model, besides the economic one, is the philosophical thought based on a recurrent Renaissance and emergence of nationalist ideas. There are history cycles during which a nation, even though at that time it did not define itself as a “nation” but more as a sense of belonging to a community, generated the highs and lows of history, impacted how empires changed, created forms of partnership resembling empires and so on.

The two models that I have just mentioned, the economic and the philosophical thought, interact with each other and end up defining the society. And, if we are to analyze the future geopolitically we need first to set the fundamental premises, which is the geographic position. The geography defines us as it draws the boundaries of the social development models, considering that the economy is deriving from the geography of the place since it relies on natural resources and how they are perceived and finally, it underlies the political/philosophical thinking. Right now, we are at a time when the cold war has taken a new shape or, more precisely the nation-state is becoming more assertive than it was after the cold war when everybody was talking about globalization and the “global village”.

RC: So what you are saying is that the emergence of the nationalist sentiment is cyclical, which helps explain the economic developments, but also the recurrence of international tensions. I would notice, however, that these cycles are accompanied by irreversible changes not cyclical in nature. Here I am referring to the rise of China as a world power. I would therefore speculate that in the overall global picture, these changes may enhance cyclical recurrences.

AC: It is worth reminding that this is not the first time that China has become a major regional power resembling at times a global power. It is not the first time when China has demonstrated that it is capable to overcome internal problems and work towards increasing its clout on the international scene, but first of all regionally. The same thing is valid for other states, such as Russia, which we see more clearly because it is closer to our backyard and because its cycles are somehow shorter.

Of course that there are noncyclic elements. One of the totally noncyclic components underpinning the resurgence of some of these powers is the advent of new types of resources. Human resources are becoming particularly important, not for their demographic implications as for their ability to trigger technological advances more than the primary resources.

RC: By human resources you mean the brain resources …

AC: Exactly! It has always been the basis of innovation, but right now having good quality human resources offers a competitive edge which is much more important now than a few decades ago.

RC: I talked with a Romanian entrepreneur who introduced automation in his own plant so as to increase efficiency by cutting the number of employees. “Do you know what the irony is?” he asked me. “I cut the number of staff, but now I am much more dependent on those left than I was previously. If one of them is missing then a whole production line stops.” This is what it is basically at stake here, isn`t it?

AC: Yes, that is exactly what`s at stake.

RC: Talking about resources … don`t you think that another important noncyclic event is falling natural resources? This is another factor that could lead to an increase in geopolitical tensions.

AC: Exactly, there is a sort of offsetting going on. The natural resource shortage leads to the human resource becoming increasingly important in finding alternatives.

RC: The rotation of the regional power status that you mentioned, in China`s case, for instance, implies that at some point in the future the current trend could reverse? Do you believe that?

AC: It is human nature to make that happen. But we need to bear in mind the geographic position. China is a power spanning an entire continent. It borders the Pacific Ocean, with some restrictions, however, which condition trading, otherwise very important for it. These factors determine how China sees its security system. The north-western region is more or less dry land which raises its own set of problems. And they end up having a continental security system and a coastline system which are currently in a pretty good balance, but entail specific social and political issues.

The largest world power right now is the US, a power associated with a continent as it dominates Northern America. And the US dependence on its neighbors and even the world is much lower. Let`s not forget that the US helped set up the current security system, as it borders two oceans. Consequently, the global security system is provided by the US.

RC: Can we expect to see the US affected by this cyclical shift of power? There is a school of thought claiming that the power of the US is on the wane globally.

AC: Yes and no. It is true that once you have several regional powers, the importance of the US decreases globally. However, given its geography, the US manage to remain a dominant power. If at some point an event occurs that will change the US geography so that it will no longer be able to dominate an entire continent, then the clout of the US will reduce to that of a regional power.

RC: Please elaborate a bit here. Where does the geographic advantage of the US lie when you say that it is a continent? At the end of the day China and Russia, too are extremely large countries.

AC: The oceans. The access to virtually all oceans and the natural border that they provide. The fact that they make the US feel much more secure.

RC: Which was evident in the World War II as well …

AC: Exactly. Right now the US army focuses on maintaining first and foremost the security system around global waters. An endeavor with deep economic substantiation as maritime transport remains the cheapest means of transport. China for example, has only just started to invest in securing its own trading routes.

RC: And yet something about the US puzzles me. Right now, under president Trump global diplomacy is tempted to give up soft power and turn more to hard power. The US is withdrawing from international treaties, but increases its defense budget. Would that be a fair assessment?

AC: That is the expression of the globally increased protectionism. Or nationalism – depending on where you stand. On the one hand, that is a response to what happened after 2008, when we entered a new period in History in the aftermath of the financial crisis. On the other hand, we are witnessing a resurgence of the regional powers, Russia and China. Under these circumstances America reacts. It must enforce economic policies that deal with a series of internal social problems, whereas the re-emergence of the regional powers requires a specific security approach.

I do not believe that the US gave up on using soft power. They are still investing in that. It is just that seeing the US utilizing hard power more in response to some geopolitical changes, and witnessing a rhetoric which is less usual, less elitist, coming from a president of the US, we are tempted to see this America as being less interested in the problems of the world and more focused on its own issues. But this is not true! On the contrary, I would say.

Just take last year, America came to Europe in a different format, specific to president Trump, but also accompanied by the military command, which resulted in a more dynamic NATO. Moreover, we are seeing a Europe wakening in military terms as a reaction to the messages coming from the US.

RC: I agree, but the military awakening of Europe seems not to value the relationship with the US as much. There is talk about the European army, European command …

AC: I see the European army as a nice dream, a wish meant to politically connect Europe and increase all Member States motivation to invest more in defense. By a Europe more interested in military issues I mean firstly a Germany that for the first time after World War II intends to have a military strategic plan. I am also thinking about France which invests more in security. So the great European powers are waking up. But however “big” would Western Europe think, its place can only be with NATO.

RC: Going back to the recurrence idea … if we accept it, then it raises the following question: “Does that also mean that there is a world war recurrence”?

AC: This is the big question that Europe, especially its elites, needs to ask itself right now. Yes. The answer is “Yes”. Social and economic problems give rise to political problems which can degenerate into armed conflicts. I assume that we, in Europe, are sufficiently mature to at least not get to that point.

RC: I infer from what you are saying that you see a possible spark coming rather from Europe.

AC: Yes. And here is why. In Europe, social and economic problems are in closer connection to the geographic position of the place, to the community. Europe has the Balkans and the Eastern border. We are talking about overlaying issues, dormant conflicts because nobody wanted to see them emerge for economic reasons. Things have somehow changed because the countries were hit by the financial crisis and the EU did not manage to provide a consistent political momentum to settle the social problems resulting from the crisis. We see two types of fragmentation: one to the East and one to the West. The Western one, in the vein of Brexit, reflects the distance between the elite and the rest of the population, mainly the middle class, whose problems it fails to understand.

In the East, the “New Europe” comes in two shapes. On the one hand we are new democracies still trying to define our path to capitalism, but on the other, due to economic difficulties and other influencing factors…

RC: (A lack of democratic culture?)

AC: (Yes, as we just set off on that path) …we are dealing with a type of nostalgia for a sense of stability.

RC: And predictability …

AC: Yes, but even the West is nostalgic for predictability. We, however, had experienced a false sense of stability and predictability. The irony is that the generation feeling nostalgic for stability is the young generation which is not acquainted with stability and predictability, but wishes it based on stories they heard from others, the older generations or outsiders. And stories are not immune to influences. We lie on a border line after all extending from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and along a historic West-East fault line towards the Adriatic Sea. Talking about recurrence … So tensions run higher in these regions than in other areas around the world.

RC: I am somehow taken aback by what you are saying. The prevailing discussions today have nothing to do with tensions within Europe. The talk is usually about the US-Russia, US-China and even China-Russia tensions, The Middle East, US-North Korea. They look like the possible spark that will ignite world wars. Whereas you are saying that the threat lies in Europe.

AC: Within the border fault lines of Europe. Let me just take the conflicts you mentioned one by one.

As far as a North Korean conflict goes, the US risks losing South Korea. Which is why it will remain a frozen conflict that will not run its course. Given, of course, that reason prevails among the North Korean leadership …

About the US and Russia conflict in the Middle East, this has to do with the European fault line that I mentioned. Russia`s interest is to keep the US engaged in the Middle East to preserve its area of influence in Eastern Europe. Right now, Russia lost Ukraine so it plays the Middle East card in a balancing act. A resurgent Turkey also entered that game and has no other solution but to try and maintain balance between Europe, the Middle East and the Caucasus. Not to mention the Turkey – Iran equilibrium. Somehow, through Turkey, we go back to Europe. And all these connections take us back to the European area of influence, the fault line area.

One example: the refugee crisis and how the games in the Middle East generated tensions in Europe. Another example: the Balkans with a bundle of influences from the Middle East, Turkey, Russia, the US or Germany.

About the US – China relationship, China is playing a very subtle economic game, but I do not think that that will result in open armed conflict because it is in the interest of neither country. At the same time, protectionist tendencies on the increase globally, as well as China`s problems will cause this tension to persist.

RC: I have in mind a conflict between the two countries that will lead to a “lose-lose” kind of situation.

AC: Exactly. At some point commercial dependence is unfavorable to peace, as happened at the beginning of the World War II. But China and the US cannot reach that point, given the US current position. For reasons of economic geography. We have the Fed, and its power over global financial markets and China which, besides that fact that it needs to expand, faces problems from within. It has to invest considerably in order to grow. Firstly in land transport routes, while the US has the oceans to do that…

RC: We were talking about the dangers of a fragmented Europe and the recurrence of world wars. Given all these, do you foresee a danger in terms of Romania splitting up in the medium or long term?

AC: No.

RC: I am asking that because there are shifts that could raise questions. The economic gaps between the historic Romanian regions are growing – with the most obvious one between Transilvania and Moldova, we see political differences, Transilvania`s infrastructure is increasingly connected to the West and almost not at all connected to eastern or southern Romania. This is the context that makes me ask such a serious question.

AC: The reason that makes me answer with a definite “No” is historic. It all boils down to national cohesion. We are not a very old state, but not that new either. We have had 100 years of powerful cohesion. Secondly, if I apply the same model that I applied to other states, we have the Danube and the Black Sea. As the resurgent powers lie to the East, China, Turkey, Russia, commercial openness eastward is as important as westward. Our security and strategic development is also supported by the transatlantic thesis. And Romania has a strategic partnership with the US on the eastern fault line, first and foremost on military issues which also cover the Black Sea region.

Actually, Romania, given its geographic position, is doomed to be a regional growth center. And I will explain why. We talked about the Balkans, the threat and opportunity that the region represents for Europe. Under these circumstances we have a direct interest in having stability across the Balkans, including from the standpoint of the existing transatlantic alliance. The Black Sea connects us to the Caucasus and Central Asia, an area which is even more precarious than the Balkans, given the Sino-Russian relations. As a result we are at the crossroads of the great powers, and historically speaking, countries along fault lines sufficiently mature to have a strategic vision did not have the choice to put aside long-term security priorities for internal social and economic reasons.

Take the case of Germany. The tensions between Western Germany and Eastern Germany are higher between those between Transilvania, Moldova and Muntenia [southern Romania]. The economic models of West and East Germany are worlds apart. Social models are different as well. Will Germany split up? No.

RC: Yes… Romania as a regional power… It is a story that I have been hearing for a long time … I`m beginning to become skeptical … Beyond the academic talks on this topic, has Romania taken advantage of its geographic position? My answer is “No”. I have the feeling that right now there is an illusion that the military power of a country can be decoupled from its economic strength. The defense budget increases may be in vain if dodgy economic policies weaken the country. Sooner or later the military power will end up being aligned with the weak economy as it will simply no longer be possible to fund it.

AC: Correct.

RC: So I would say that our most important challenge is to be economically powerful as many other things will derive from that.

AC: I completely agree. But I want to be clear. Even if Romania does not see the opportunity to become a regional power, it will still be used as a connecting bridge. So it is up to us whether we will just want be used or we are more ambitious and grow into a power. But disintegration, that no. It may depend on us, but others, too, have a say in this. Nobody has such an interest right now. The eastern fault line can be stable only if Romania is powerful. And for Romania to be militarily powerful, it has first to be economically strong. And that requires a stable and coherent legal framework, coherent country strategies.

RC: I completely agree, Antonia and I am looking forward to that moment. Thank you for this discussion.

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